“God Who?”

For the typical 1950s Christian family, Sunday was church day. But for many Christian families in the 21st century, Sundays are best spent binging shows on Netflix.

Raised as a practising Muslim, I grew up wearing the hijab, praying five times a day, and fasting during Ramadan. To this day, religion remains a guiding force in my life, and I have my upbringing to thank for that. Yet while some of my closest friends grew up the same way I did, they ended up abandoning religious beliefs over time; many date, others drink, and even fewer observe daily prayers. Unsurprisingly, they aren’t alone.

Often referred to as "nones", the religiously unaffiliated account for 1.1 billion people worldwide and comprise the second largest religious group (following Christianity) in North America alone. As their name suggests, this group includes atheists, agnostics and skeptics, along with those who are disinterested in organised religion as a whole. Although nonreligious “nones” may still have religious beliefs - for example, belief in a higher power.  

Not only are the unaffiliated are growing in number, they are also appealing to a younger generation. A study published in 2010  found that young adults today are less religious than their predecessors, with 25 per cent of millennials claiming to be either atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.” Another survey found that out of 1,004 Canadian millennials, 51 per cent do not attend religious institutions such as churches and mosques for prayers and sermons. Perhaps millennials are too busy checking their social media feeds to be bothered with divine wisdom –  if they even happen to believe it exists in the first place.

The rise of today’s secularist societies means adults tomorrow will answer questions about God with a blunt, “God Who?”. At what cost did we go from being practising Hindus/Christians/Jews/Muslims, to simply inheriting religion like a tradition passed down through generations? And why?

When millennials stop needing God

There are a few major reasons why millennials are drifting away from institutionalised religion: a lack of scientific evidence, a perceived lack of relevancy in a modern world and the lingering doubts that come with being born into something as opposed to seeking it out.

For Ryerson University’s Muslim chaplain, Imam Yasin Dwyer, a decade in university faith-based counselling has brought him face to face with students encountering many of these issues themselves. "Students are struggling to give meaning to their spirituality in a western, secular context,” he said. "And religious institutions are still trying to understand how to make faith relevant to the next generation."

With the rise of secularism, it’s easy enough to question the role of religion in today’s modern age. Consider scientific advancements that can explain more about our world today than ever before; from Darwin’s Theory of Evolution to the Big Bang, it’s clear science accounts for a God, or lack thereof. Societal values today also make it socially acceptable to openly question God or declare yourself an atheist without fear of retaliation. According to Dwyer, the relevancy of religion today is still a question harping young minds. For millennials raised in these modernised societies, it’s no surprise that practising religion like their parents before them doesn’t make sense.

On the other hand, there are young people, like myself, who were raised in the modern world and yet chose to maintain their religiosity. How exposed are we to the values that come adjoined with a modernising world? Dwyer explained it to me like this: when it comes to religion, Canada is one big shopping mall. “There’s so many groups, beliefs, and ideologies competing for the hearts and minds of young adults,” he said. With university comes freedom, and with that freedom comes exposure to new ideas.

Dwyer explained that in this shopping mall environment, if someone isn’t grounded in the “philosophical underpinnings” of their faith, it’s easy for them to become doubtful and disengage from religion completely. Statistics seem to agree: 78 per cent of religious nones were raised as practising members of a faith before reaching adulthood and abandoning their religious beliefs. While doubt can confuse and sever, it only ended up solidifying my beliefs.

Raised in a religious household, I performed prayers and rituals like clockwork – over time, acts of worship became a mundane routine that held no real significance anymore. For a long time, while I may have seemed outwardly religious, I wasn’t able to spiritually connect with God. Doubting my religious beliefs in high school was what prompted me to seek out the why behind these practises and ultimately question the validity of my faith: Why am I praying five times a day? What’s the point of this? Who am I trying to become and for whom? 

If the many reasons for the sharp rise of the religiously unaffiliated was an iceberg, my conversation with Dwyer only scraped its very tip. A 2016 survey sought to explain other common reasons why nones don’t care for faith: nearly half of respondents cited reasons of science and logic that stopped them from believing in religion, while others disapproved of institutionalised religion, blaming it as a perpetrator of violence and conflict. Around 18 per cent also said they were more spiritual than religious; they felt the existence of a higher power, but didn’t need religion to facilitate this connection.

Morality in an increasingly secular world

 “If you can’t determine right from wrong, then you lack empathy, not religion.”

Months ago, I ran into one of my childhood friends from the mosque. Up until she moved away, in Grade 3, we would often play at each other’s houses while our mothers chatted away over tea. At first, I didn’t even recognise her; she now smoked weed, spent her nights clubbing, and often skipped school - the standard acts of teenage rebellion in full bloom. After hearing of the encounter, my mother sighed to herself and offered her classic one-liner: “People these days have no fear of God.”

When we talk about secularism, there’s often mention of that shift away from traditional, “wholesome” values- values primarily instilled in us through religious institutions. Among other things, religion provides people with a moral compass- a guiding set of ethics that help differentiate right from wrong. Does that then make the religiously unaffiliated less moral? Hardly.

Vern Bengtson, a sociologist conducting one the largest studies on religion and families in the United States, found secular Americans to have “high levels of family solidarity” and “strong ethical standards and moral values.” Another telling fact reported by the Los Angeles Times: countries like Sweden, Denmark, Japan, and Belgium with amongst the lowest rates of religious participation also exhibit the “lowest violent crime rates in the world and enjoy remarkably high levels of societal well-being.”

Religion is only what you want it to be - a book open for interpretation. People often flock to it with personal biases tainting their worldview. To one person, my religion might call for peace, but to another, it is a fundamental instigator of violence. Both Malcolm X and Osama bin Laden were Muslim, and both Adolf Hitler and Martin Luther King Jr. were Christian. Morality isn’t contingent upon a person’s religiosity, nor should we rely on religion as a crutch to form kinder, more empathetic versions of ourselves.